Monday, 31 January 2011

Writing Heroes - from Dick Bruna to Bill Bryson

I've had a weekend thinking about books since reading about the writing heroes of Wendy at Very Bored in Catalunya. What struck me as interesting about Wendy's post and the comments it inspired, was how important childhood books were to everyone, far more memorable to us now than the novels we may have read last month.

The first books to make an impression on me were the Miffy series by Dick Bruna. I recall reading about this gorgeous little bunny in my infant school. I must have read them spectacularly well one day as I was sent to the Headmistress who honoured me with three gold stars and, best of all, I could choose a huge, glassy, boiled sweet she kept in a large jar on her desk. I still remember my little fingers wiggling in the jar to find a red one. I do wonder now at the wisdom of offering five year olds cavity-inducing choking hazards full of e-numbers.

Next on my list is Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White, about the little pig, Wilbur, and his talented friend, the spider, Charlotte. My parents were surprised I enjoyed this book as I was never an animal-lover and always shrieked when I saw a spider. I remember coming down the stairs into the kitchen where my mum and dad were sitting, trying to tell them through big gulping sobs that Charlotte had died (oops sorry, spoiler!). I'd like to be able to tell you that my arachnophobia was cured and from then on I was able to scoop up the little creatures. No, still can't stand the buggers.

I soaked up the Malory Towers  books by Enid Blyton, enraptured by the delights of midnight feasts in the dorm and curious about the dashing names of the girls: Darrell and Alicia seemed a world away from Julie and Nicola which were common names in my school at the time.

Exams came along and thankfully the challenge of getting into the heart of a novel, dissecting it and finding quotes to drop into essays didn't spoil literature for me. On the contrary it helped me understand it more and certain books are now etched on my brain and heart. Shakespeare's King Lear, DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, are all instantly familiar to me now, though Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent always left me cold.

Authors who have inspired me as an adult? EM Forster, Anita Shreve, Joanne Harris, Mary Wesley, Christopher Brookmyre, Yann Martel (Life of Pi) are a few that spring to mind.

However my love of travel writing must surely stem from an appreciation of the talents of Bill Bryson and particularly his book, Neither Here Nor There. I adore his self-deprecating style, mooching around Europe finding delight in the people and situations around him. No stuffy eulogies about churches and museums; just quirky observations of his fellow travellers and the indigenous population of the countries he shuffles through, despairing at town councils, architects and planners along the way.

When we are on holiday and sight-seeing or just generally ambling about, I think to myself, "What would Bill say about this?" and that usually keeps me on the right track.

Which authors have left their mark on you? Any particular childhood favourites?


Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Gallery - Children - Cousins

My son, Rory, nearly 15, recently met his two week old cousin, John. The whole family were delighted when Rory asked if he could have a cuddle. We expected a teenage disinterest in the baby but, on the contrary, he was transfixed by the little fella and later, when he thought we weren't watching, he knelt down on the floor next to where the baby was lying, stroked his face and held his hand. It was such a tender moment and I hope a special bond will develop between these two lovely boys.

This post is for The Gallery; the theme this week is 'Children'. It gave me another excuse to go all soppy looking at my new nephew: even better with my lovely lad in the picture too!


Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Lorraine Kelly and my last-minute Burns Night

I blame Lorraine Kelly. I wasn't planning to do anything for Burns Night. I have a big report to type up for my husband and promised him I'd crack on with it today. Then Lorraine scuppers my plans by inviting Richard Phillips to show me his cock-a-leekie this morning. Well, what's a girl to do after being encouraged in such a manner. As usual I didn't have all the ingredients; most importantly the cock bit was missing, aka chicken thighs.

A quick dash to Tesco and I returned with required ingredients (including the leekie as I didn't have that either). I settled down to work and then thought, wouldn't it be a nice surprise for my Scottish hubby if I were to go the whole hog and have some haggis too? Throughout the year we often have chicken stuffed with haggis. This seems to be called either Jacobean Chicken or Balmoral Chicken and, to be honest, is Dougie's own signature dish so I don't know why I'm attempting it....but I did have the chicken.

I didn't, however, have the haggis. I rang our butcher and asked if they had any. I was told yes they had some in the freezer. I asked them to get one out of the freezer to give me a head start and I'd come and get it. You'd have thought they would have defrosted a few for Burns Night but, hey, this is Lincolnshire so maybe they haven't much call for it.

As I still have a whole pile of work to do (writing this post is just another example of procrastination) I'm giving the traditional pudding a miss. It really should be Cranachan, a mixture of cream, oats and raspberries, but I have a couple of Gu puds in the fridge and some Ben and Jerry's ice cream in the freezer for Rory. In case The Bard is turning in his grave, I'll appease him with a couple of Whisky Macs (whisky and green ginger wine) before bedtime.

Here's my recipe for haggis-stuffed chicken if you fancy giving it a try

Haggis-stuffed Chicken

Serves: 6

1 small onion
1 tbsp whisky
1 x 454g haggis, crumbled
6 skinless chicken breasts
6 rashers streaky bacon (I tend to use more)

Pre-heat oven to 200 degrees/gas mark 6
Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in pan, cook onion 5 mins
Pour in whisky, leave to cool for 10 mins
Stir in haggis
Make a pocket in the chicken, stuff with haggis and fold back together
Stretch bacon and wrap one piece round centre of each chicken breast (or use more strips to cover whole breast)
Seal chicken in frying pan in batches
Transfer to baking tray and cook for 20-25 minutes

Serve with mash or traditional clapshot (potatoes and turnip/swede) and gravy.

PS - One of the comments below mentioned this little Scottish greeting which she wasn't sure was real. Here's the Robert Burns poem, Cock Up Your Beaver!

When first my brave Johnie lad came to this town,
He had a blue bonnet that wanted the crown
But now he has gotten a hat and a feather,
Hey, brave Johnie lad, cock up your beaver!

Cock up your beaver, and cock it fu' sprush
We'll over the border and gie them a brush;
There's somebody there we'll teach better behaviour
Hey, brave Johnie lad, cock up your beaver.


Friday, 21 January 2011

I'm not feeling broody, honest

A couple of weeks ago we went back up to Newcastle to meet our new nephew, John, for the first time. I was completely besotted with him.

I've always been quite ambivalent about friends' babies: I have enjoyed a cuddle and can ooh and aah with the best of them but never felt a real emotional bond. So imagine my surprise when, nearly 15 years after my own son was born, I should be handed a two-week old little bundle and fall head over heels for him.

I was transported back to when Rory was the same age. He was so similar to this little tuppence, it was uncanny. The maternal tug was extraordinary and it was very difficult for anyone else to get a look in as I selfishly monopolised him most of the afternoon.

We had to come home the day after and I really miss this little baby so much - I wouldn't have believed the difference a family link would make to how close I feel to him.

I'm getting all soppy now so to lighten the mood, here's a video of the baby, entranced by a singing teddy. Just watch his little hands try to copy the clapping hands of the toy.


Thursday, 20 January 2011

Review of Writing Therapy by Tim Atkinson

When you know someone before you read their book there is always a sense of intrigue. Is it going to reflect the personality of the person you think you know? Is it going to match your expectations?

I know Tim Atkinson via his blog, Bringing up Charlie, which I had started reading before I knew that we lived fairly close to each other and had mutual friends. I eventually met him when we unexpectedly occupied adjoining mobile homes on a campsite in France. When we greeted each other I was in pyjamas, holding a mug of tea, with my hair sticking up: he was in his shorts holding hands with Charlie. Despite the awkward start, Tim proved to be just as I expected: an intelligent, warm, genial man.

I bought Tim's book a few weeks ago, at the same time as purchasing Tiny Acorns  from Dotterel Press. Although I had not contributed to the anthology, I had helped to proofread it and felt I had part-ownership of the venture, albeit a very small one.

On the surface, Writing Therapy wouldn't be the type of novel I would be particularly drawn to as I have become lazy with my reading choices of late, preferring to pick a book from the bestseller lists so that I have the nod of the masses to narrow my search. This book looked as if it might be hard work. On the back cover it states:

"Can you 'write' yourself well? And if you don't like the story life has written for you, can you really change it? Is it possible to re-write the past?"

It didn't sound as if it would be an easy read or a particularly happy one. However it did sound intriguing and, for heaven's sake, surely I can knuckle down and tackle something out of the ordinary: give my brain cells a bit of a work out?

The book is about Frances Nolan, a young girl receiving treatment for mental illness, who takes up writing therapy, alongside more traditional psychiatric methods, as a way of finding a solution to her problems. The narrator is Frances, so immediately the style of writing was different to what I was expecting. It wasn't Tim telling the story using his language, it was an adolescent girl, making tentative steps into the world of writing using her own words.

Once I had accepted the voice of the book, the challenge was then to believe in Frances. This is where the role I usually have as a reader was turned on its head. Frances is writing part biography and part fiction, exploring her past and present in order to face her future. I found this challenged my perception of 'believing' a narrator. What was real? What was fantasy? Was her real name Frances or was she really Sophie?

The characters around her, brilliantly described, helped me to place Frances/Sophie in her environment and I found I was rooting for the heroes of the piece, particularly Will, whose caring, foward-looking approach helped our girl find her way out of the darkness.

This is an arresting novel, constantly challenging yet, in its own way, simply written in a young girl's frightened, traumatised voice. Underlying the story, it also examines the process of writing itself; how to put ideas onto the page and into some kind of structure. The plot develops as the author discovers how to put her thoughts into words.

A very clever concept and an enjoyable read with some mind-gymnastics thrown in for good measure. It may leave you with some questions unanswered but it won't leave you.


Monday, 17 January 2011

Mum's going to Martinhal Beach Resort

Look at that beach. Isn't it just perfect? Come July I will be lying on it, waves lapping at my feet, breathing in that energising sea air. It's booked, deposit paid and now all I can do is wait, dream and decide how many bikinis I can fit into my luggage allowance.

Our Summer holidays over recent years have been quite diverse:
Iceland: snow-mobiling, glacier-hiking, whale-watching and every other hyphenated scary activity known to man.
Canada: arguing with a French Canadian SatNav woman whilst trying to negotiate the main roads of the Eastern states.
Lake Garda: Lolling by the pool of the gorgeous Parc Germano apartments and drinking copious amounts of the local Bardolino wine.
Dordogne: back to basics with a caravan holiday in the French countryside: heavenly location but too much toe-stubbing  in tiny bedroom and husband used up all his gaffer tape fixing wobbly pan handles and a lethal barbecue.

In our quest for the perfect holiday this year to suit a lazy mother, likes-to-think-he's-Ray-Mears father and increasingly horizontal teenage son, we did a virtual trip around the globe. We spent a good few days on a Western Canada fly-drive (maybe next year) and an inordinately long time in Scandinavia. Husband Dougie, still obsessed with a driving holiday, also had a minor flirtation with the Black Forest. I, however, was yearning for the sea.

At heart, I'm a beach girl. I was born in Whitley Bay on the North East coast and my early memories of holidays are all beach-based. I was dearly missing the sea. So, with a great deal of guile, and the convincing argument that we could afford it as we roughed it last year by going camping, I persuaded my man to come with me to the seaside.

Our destination for 2011 is......Portugal.

On the South West tip of the Algarve coast, near the historic town of Sagres, is the Martinhal Beach Resort. It opened in 2010 and seems to tick all the boxes to suit all three of us. A five star 33 bedroomed hotel, together with an assortment of self-catering family houses, slap bang on the beach within a protected national park. Sporting facilities, chill-out room for older children, choice of restaurants, pools with Fatboy loungers, and that stunning beach.

We will hire a car from Faro airport and have, at the most, an hour and a half of bickering before we reach Martinhal. Then we can take up residence in an Ocean House, right on the beach, designed so the bedrooms are on the ground floor whereas the living area and balcony upstairs can make the most of the views. The accommodation is chic, contemporary and not the least bit fussy. It's kitted out with Satellite TV, wireless internet access, MP3 docking station, designer kitchen with washing machine and dryer. There's even a coffee machine. I had hoped it would be a Nespresso like they have in the hotel rooms but apparently not...*wailing and gnashing of teeth*. May have to dispense with shoes and pack my own machine instead.

Rory can sleep, chill by the pool or try his hand at Padel Tennis: a form of short tennis which might appeal to him as it's less far to run. Dougie might have a go at kite-surfing or kayaking or try out the gym.

Or he may join me, hand in hand, walking along that magnificent shore-line.

Images courtesy of IDeal PR for Martinhal Beach Resort.


Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Gallery - Body Parts - Which bum is mine?

What an ingenious subject for this week's Gallery - body parts. I took the opportunity to look through some old photographs for inspiration, rather than focus my lens on portions of my post-Christmas body which wouldn't be a pretty sight.

The chosen photo was taken in the 1980s when I was at University in Cambridge. Like all students I was up for finding alternative activities to studying, so the chance to help in a record attempt seemed like an excellent use of a midweek evening. A gorgeous real-ale pub, The Free Press was near to our college, Emmanuel, and sported a very small separate drinking area, the snug, measuring about 6 ft x 5 ft. There was a record, set by another college, to cram as many students as possible into this small space....I know not why: it was a tradition.

When we arrived for the record attempt I decided this really wasn't a great idea for someone who gets a tad wobbly in a lift, so there was no way I was going to cope in a tiny room with dozens of sweaty students. I opted for the less scary option of sitting on the wooden dividing wall with another four girls. As long as we had most of our body in the room then we were classed as being 'in' the snug. This wasn't an official record, Norris McWhirter wasn't hanging around with a clipboard taking notes, so I suspect the landlord made the rules up as we went along.

The chaps in the foreground,  local non-student regulars, were outside of the snug and seemed to have taken it upon themselves to 'hold up' the wall. I have no idea how they considered their non-beer-holding-hand was going to do any good if it collapsed but they weren't giving up their excellent viewing position for anyone.

Somewhere in our house is a press cutting which will tell me how many people we managed to squash into the snug on that night. I sent Dougie up into the loft to look for it. He couldn't find it but banged his elbow in the process and the language on the landing was choice. Best not ask him to look again. I do remember we broke the record and something like 58 people were counted. In hindsight if we'd only chosen little people and not allowed some of the rugby team to participate, we might have managed more. The current record I hear is 62.

So which bum is my bum? Recognise those buttocks? Have a cheeky guess!

For more photographs of body parts, visit Tara at The Gallery


Sunday, 9 January 2011

Hello Mr Chips!

How's that for a chip butty?
I don't usually do reviews on my blog. To be fair, I'm never asked! However, I must have become rather excited on a review post by Tim on "Bringing up Charlie"  when I commented on the Tefal Actifry he had been asked to test. I recalled a defining moment in the relationship with my lovely husband, when, for our first Christmas together, he bought me a deep-fat fryer on Christmas Eve. He didn't even wrap it: bought it from a local supermarket and hoisted it out of the boot of the car to show me. If I remember rightly, when I asked him why he had chosen such a thoughtful gift, the best he could come up with was "I really fancied some chips".

Our deep-fat fryer kept us going for a few years but I wasn't keen on the huge slabs of lard I had to put into the machine. Then there was the smell: after a few sessions the whiff was so unpleasant we had cook our chips on the back step of the kitchen so the pong would waft outside. The neighbours must have loved us.

We have managed for the last 15 years with no fryer: oven chips have sufficed. But they're not the same, are they? So Dougie and Rory were just a bit excited when we were asked to test the family-sized Tefal Actifry over the holidays.

Chips start
Approx 40 mins!

So what did we think of it?

Beautifully-cooked chips
No horrible smell
Hardly any oil needed so very healthy
Capacity for up to 1.5kg chips
Very simple to use
Ability to cook potato wedges, stir-fries and even chilli con carne
Teenage boys and their friends loved it.

It is big and bulky - would need its own cupboard.
Price - about £200, but shop around for discounts.
I didn't have the urge to cook anything bar potatoes in it: I do prefer a wok for stir-fries so I can pretend I'm a celebrity chef.
Husband craved an unhealthy, oily chip after a while. Caught him looking wistfully out of the car window as we passed the local chippy.

Would I buy one?

I would have to have a clear-out of gadgets before I contemplated spending more money. Out would go the pasta maker, the grilling machine, the sandwich maker, the electric fondue, the Simpsons doughnut-maker and the ice-cream maker.... and then I might find a home for it.


Thursday, 6 January 2011

Mum's Gone to Have a Lovely Time

Prehistoric Cro-Magnon man
standing beside a big sculpture!

If you're wanting some inspiration for a family holiday this year, then pop over to the 'Have a Lovely Time' website where I've written an article,  Castles and Cavemen in the Dordogne, about our trip to France last Summer. There's lots of suggestions there about which visitor attractions will appeal to children: plenty of rivers, caves, castles and gardens ideal for children of all ages.

Those of you who read the original posts will be pleased to know I haven't talked about some of the French loos we encountered or the culinary delights of the chip pizza.


Saturday, 1 January 2011

Uma Thurman never looked like this in Pulp Fiction.

Pretty scary eh? This is Soapy Sophie from my previous blog post modelling the shocking wig I attempted to create so I could go to the assassins-themed fancy dress party as Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction.

You may remember I asked for ideas and, amongst some splendid suggestions from you all, including Emma's Mick and Bianca Jagger combo because she hadn't really got a handle on the theme, Uma Thurman and John Travolta's iconic duo appealed to us. I had a long white shirt and cut-off black trousers and Dougie...well, Dougie had a suit.

As usual, having had plenty of time to plan this, we left it to the day before New Year's Eve to decide who we would go as and how we could re-create the look. Our local fancy dress shop had an excellent black bobbed wig on their website but when I turned up, it was out of stock. Not one to give up, I bought an alternative: it was an Egyptian Lady wig: very long with ribbon threaded through it. I maybe should have been sensible here and opted to go as Cleopatra but my heart was set on Uma and I reckoned I could alter it.

Once I'd taken all the ribbon out, the plastic hair was far too wavy and full of static. I'd been told that heat doesn't work on synthetic wigs but, feeling brave, tried to flatten the bumps by ironing it though a tea-towel. It melted. Thankfully the melted chunk was at the bottom of the wig which would need to be chopped anyway. Dougie was brought in at this stage to sit in the kitchen with the wig on his head while I set to with the scissors. It's harder than it looks to cut straight. As you can see from the photo, this was Uma Thurman channelling Crystal Tipps (those old enough to remember will know what I mean: those who aren't, click HERE).

There was no way I could go to the party looking like this and, at 6pm New Year's Eve, we had to think again...and quick. I decided, having a black dress and a string of pearls, I could manage to re-create another reader's suggestion of La Femme Nikita from the 1990 film. Dougie would have needed to grow a large amount of stubble and find a long tweed coat in just over an hour if he was to dress up as Victor the cleaner from the film. Thankfully YouTube came to the rescue and I found the restaurant scene from the film where Nikita is given instructions from her boss, named Bob. Bob wears a smart suit and tie. Dougie was Bob. Sorted.

Rory had also been invited to the party with his pal and they picked up on yet another idea from the original comments on my post, going as Eric and Dylan, the Columbine killers. A rather grim and unsettling choice, I have to admit, but as we can't get Rory's checked Superdry shirt off his back at the moment, he looked just right.

Most people had interpreted the theme as villains or baddies rather than hit-men per se. Amongst the party-goers there were a couple of Rambos, an assortment of James Bond look-a-likes and some Mr and Mrs Smiths. One friend came as the milkman from the Bond film. The Living Daylights, although no-one quite remembered that there was a milkman and presumed she (yes, she) had mistaken the theme at first and come as Benny Hill.

A slight issue with the food. We thought it was going to be a drinks party with nibbles so I insisted we eat before we left, making the family a lamb biryani. We arrived to discover that although there were dozens of teenagers demolishing a buffet, there was a dinner party arrangement for the adults who were there. We were ushered into the dining room for a big sit-down meal....moroccan lamb. Just a small portion for me, thanks!

After dinner we played mini-roulette with black vodka and port. Each adult had a red and black shot glass with three numbers on each. To win chips, if your number came up, you had to drink the corresponding black or red drink or, if you were stupid enough to have decided to drive, like me, you opted for a quiz question on James Bond and villains. There was something unbalanced with the roulette wheel as four numbers came up all the time including mine, red 16. I was then quite grateful I was driving as I'd have been completely trollied otherwise. My knowledge of villains was limited but I did impress with my recollection of Ursula Andress's Golden Globes.

The large group of 18 year old teens behaved reasonably well with only a few spilt drinks and one or two maudlin "Oh I love you, man"  chaps staggering about after midnight. Rory and his smaller group of 14/15 year old male friends, despite their tongues hanging out at the array of 18 year old female flesh on show, complete with garters and guns, knew their place and found a home in the host's son's bedroom. Thankfully their stash of beer and alcopops they had hidden in a chest of drawers was soon discovered and confiscated. Rory swears he only had a J2O.